The Rhythm of Application Development Success

December 22, 2020

As a Portfolio Product Owner and the business owner responsible for unit profitability and client satisfaction in a for-hire development shop, I am challenged to find a way to juggle the challenges of correct estimation, target attainment, proper supervision, empowerment, quality, issue containment, client expectations, and employee growth/retainment.  These are common challenges for any development shop.

As we approach twenty years in business; coding, delivering, growing, overcoming obstacles, and finding new ways to balance all, I’d like to share a tool, a piece of advice that has served me well to lead my team.  And that is the understanding and execution of rhythm.

The realization you are operating at a pace or rhythm of actions and the decision to control this rhythm appropriately is vital to your success.  This concept can be best explained by drawing a metaphor to musical performance, where teamwork and timing are the difference between a melodic success or a discordant disaster.

A small band of four members is like a SCRUM team on a project.  Each member has a role they must master; teamwork and timing are essential to get a pleasing product.  An orchestra of ten members operates on the same rules as a small band, but they have subgroups that come into play at select instances to drive a point or create an impinging effect. A modern full-scale Symphony Orchestra can contain one hundred members and requires an artisan called a Maestro, aptly named, to guide the group to perform at the most sophisticated and demanding musical collaboration available to us.  For us Portfolio Product Owners, the challenge does not stop there, for we are required to manage bands playing pop, rock, jazz or soul, orchestras playing swing, pop, new age and classical, and symphonic orchestras playing Mozart, Beethoven and Bach- all at the same time.

Today I gave a cursory look at my backlog, and I’m “managing” approximately 45 resources, where they must coordinate and work closely with more than 200 other professionals to attain success.  I am responsible for twenty-six active projects, each with their own level of intensity, and nine software products, including our Website, Intranet, and Social Media.  All are happening at the same time.  I am required to be a Maestro, and I am no magician.

In choosing and developing a management strategy to deal with this challenge, I had the following vital goals:

  • The diverse nature of what we do is beyond the scope of competence of one person.  I decided that I needed a close team of four to seven senior development executives to manage the team effectively.  Decisions must be collective, so I formed an Executive Team.
  • I realized that we needed a meeting and methodology where project managers and product managers could report the progress of their targets, vent impediments for the possibility of easy resolution, and voice the needs for resources, or other assets.  So, I formed a Projects team separate from the Products team as they have different needs and, in our case, participants.  Better to have two meetings of 30 minutes back to back, than one meeting of 60 minutes and waste the time of 30 to 40 percent of the participants.
  • As one of the most experienced project managers and coders of the group, my goal was to replace myself as quickly as possible and empower my team to manage their groups and make their own decisions. I’m nearly 60, and I started at 15.  Succession is a factor.
  • The only guide to success is unit profitability and client satisfaction.  The others may seem secondary, but profitability and approval are directly monitored by juggling the concepts stated above.  I invite you to take another look at them.
  • I had to resist the temptation to micro-manage and learn to get out of the way. 
  • The technological competence, by that I mean our understanding and effective use of the tools we use to create a product, is there.  For me it was a priority to identify those tools and push towards attaining mastery of them, while letting our clients and prospects know our leading role in this.  We have won many awards for truly remarkable performance.

To apply these concepts and create the rhythm and style of the business unit, I selected the following actions to take:

  • The Executive Team meets first thing on Mondays, and this is my meeting.  We track about 35 vital targets, including each major project, our products, opportunities, production evolutions, their commissions (yes they are commissionable employees, and I want them to make sure that I track the payment of their commissions as a priority for me), the status of our products, billing progress, staff utilization, and critical situations, which we usually tackle last.  We get through the rhythm of coordination before we tackle the “big” problems.  This is a 30-minute meeting.  I may have a breakout meeting with some of them after handling a crisis, that is, to listen to their needs, give them advice, help them make a decision, or issue an order as a last resort.
  • The Projects Team runs all projects and each active project has a Project Manager and Technical Lead assigned to it.  These are formal assignments.  I meet with all of them first thing on Tuesdays.  Thirty minutes for all Projects and another thirty minutes for Products.  This is not my meeting; it is their meeting.  Each meeting is orchestrated by the Senior Project Manager of our Executive Team where all Project Managers report their projects’ status, discuss impediments, share successes, collaborate, and ask for resources or assistance. Each project is assigned a RAG (Red, Amber, Green) Status: for Scope, Time, Resources, and Finance.  Each project has an area where the PMs note their progress, plans, and concerns.  As it is their meeting, I allow some latitude in the use of that documentation, but not in the RAG status assessment.  We use Microsoft DevOps to track and groom the backlogs for each project and product.
  • Since learning and growth are vital in our unit, the first meeting on Wednesday is invested in tracking the success of certification training for our staff, where we reward our fastest, and allow them to start to lead, and gently nudge the laggards.  I tell my team that any consulting firm’s motto is “Up or Out.”  And the “out” includes moving to a client in a leading role.  We beam with pride at having produced three government CIOs and at least two VP Level CIOs for private enterprise.
  • Once a month, the whole team meets; we call it the Code Point (our methodology) Development Network.  It is a gathering of the cadre to connect, remind all of our standards, push what is truly important, teach by showing a successful action, and enjoy pizza.
  • Various times per year, we meet in a cinema to enjoy the latest blockbuster movie.  Early on, I discovered that my coders, like myself, love Science Fiction movies.  On that special Thursday at 2 pm, I closed the firm, and we all went to see one of the Star Wars’ new movies.  At the time we were about 40 in the whole company.  Proudly, I told my brother, the co-founder of the firm and our CFO, “How about that; here we are enjoying ourselves in a growing firm.” He said, “Great! Do you know how much this is costing?” Sure, I said, “$200. I paid for all the tickets myself.” “No, he said, “about $25,000, that is the combined effect of all our billable resources being idle for 4 hours on a prime billing day.”  Oh, how right he was.  So, I told him, we’ll move it to Fridays for the 7 pm show, but I get to invite their families too.  To his credit he said yes.  And for years I’ve greeted spouses to thank them for lending us their spouses in the long hours of work, their kids, where I would tell them their mom or dad was an awesome professional and they would have a great future too if they studied and worked hard, and even grandmothers, to thank them for the superb job they did in helping to raise such a fine person.  In honesty, that is a vital part of the rhythm of our success and, perhaps, my favorite thing to do.
  • Like any SCRUM shop, there are sprints, backlogs to groom, products to produce, and stakeholders to please.  Scrum Masters influence their teams, backlogs are filled, sprints are executed, retrospectives are held, and lessons are learned and taught. That is a topic for another day, but it certainly is part of the symphony of the concurrent melodies playing in various rooms and abroad, and if you are still, you can listen to the music it creates.  Most of the time it is pleasing.  Sometimes, oops, a violin is out of tune.  No one needs to tell him to stop; a few are there immediately to help, others stand-in, or play a bit louder to take up the slack.

There’s more detail, but this is, as they say, the gist of it.  Coding is a hard business, very competitive and fast.  It’s not for everyone. If you are fueled by a desire to succeed and if you seek to join a team of vibrant professionals who are on the same wavelength as you, perhaps you can join our fraternity.  If you are a buyer or user who needs exceptional resources to assist you in conceiving, building, and launching a powerful new app, mobile ready, with necessary ties to vital back end systems, perhaps some of the executives, architects, analysts, and coders that make up the symphony I’ve described above are the team you are looking for.  I highly recommend them.  They are capable and fearless leaders of change.

How to use Analytics to Boost Revenue During a Global Pandemic

Executive Summary

A global pandemic is upon us.  Government and private enterprise, large and small firms alike, are feeling its debilitating effects.  Never has the necessity for vital information been more relevant to accurately inform decision makers about changing market needs, to base survival decisions.

Puerto Rico’s Centro de Recaudación de Ingresos Municipales (CRIM) is charged with invoicing, receiving, and distributing the funds generated by property taxes for all municipalities of the struggling Caribbean island.  Facing the current scene, it saw its revenue streams rapidly eroding.  A disparate collection of Oracle, SQL, and geographic databases placed long delays in gathering the actionable intelligence urgently needed by management to effectively respond to the crisis.  CRIM suffered from an ancient labyrinth of connections that slowed system performance to a crawl.  It also suffered from data errors and inconsistencies that severely curtailed revenue generation and data analysis efforts.  According to an in-depth analysis by Truenorth Corporation, using the Sunrise Software-as-a-Service offering, the agency had been losing revenue opportunities to the point that it collected less than a quarter of its potential income.

With municipalities on the island struggling to fund urgent recovery and sustainment efforts, CRIM took effective action.  It avoided the temptation to raise property taxes on an economically struggling community.  Instead, CRIM fast-tracked Sunrise to evaluate its systems, identify metrics, build a data warehouse that unified its many databases, and execute other supporting projects to bring its revenue objectives to fruition.  This decision resulted in over $250 million of potential additional revenue for municipalities to fund sustainability projects, rebuild infrastructure, and provide other urgent services.

Sunrise is composed of multiple facets, including a detailed assessment of existing revenue generation processes and underlying systems, the creation of streamlined data architecture, the implementation of TimeXtender’s automation and machine learning platform, and alignment of all related processes and procedures.  Sunrise employs TimeXtender as the primary data warehouse conduit for property tax information and interaction.  Once implemented, Sunrise offered management clear insight into the consequences of historical actions.  Integration hassles were sidestepped or corrected and system performance optimized.  Sunrise focuses on lost revenue opportunities, like identifying those who do not pay or grossly underpay, rather than penalizing those who contribute.  Armed with more accurate and timely data, CRIM’s tax officials could now collaborate seamlessly with other government agencies to significantly expand the number of avenues for revenue.

The initial implementation of Sunrise was completed in two months.  Once the initial two-week project evaluation period was finished, implementation took about three weeks, followed by revenue acceleration actions of up to two months.  This yielded over $250 million in potential additional revenue for the CRIM, an increase of 8% over the previous year.

A Clear Management Vision

Lacking the actionable intelligence that Sunrise offered the CRIM executives, they could not immediately identify the revenue sources necessary to effectively bring an end to the dwindling spiral of revenue erosion.  Sunrise is not a software program, it is a methodology employing components of traditional Management Consulting, primarily finance-based operations management and process reengineering, technology management, by identifying paths to critical data that could be quickly and effectively leveraged, and the inclusion of custom coding to create adequate interfaces to legacy components and then present them in an easy to understand and more comfortable to track method which ties directly to the articulation of revenue-based management initiatives to check the erosion of revenue.  Drawing from three distinct disciplines, Management Consulting, Technology, and Application Management with Machine Learning Artificial Intelligence, Sunrise illuminates the path towards sustainable revenue to meet immediate challenges.

Business Insights Virtuosity

Data warehousing and business analytics are not novel concepts.  Implementing a data warehouse involves several challenges related to data quality, integration, privacy, performance, and cost.  With data being fed in many different formats, data quality and accessibility can become insurmountable obstacles.  Inevitably, errors, inconsistencies, duplicates, missing data, wrong names, incorrect addresses, and faulty property information must be weeded out and corrected.  The conclusions reached by analytics engines will only be as accurate as the data being analyzed and the rigor with which insights are translated into actionable and measurable results.

Similarly, performance must not be impacted.  It’s common for a data warehouse project to be introduced at a time when the underlying databases are already struggling to provide information promptly.  A spaghetti of interconnections generally brings about extreme system sluggishness.  Therefore, any new data warehouse architecture must not place an additional latency burden on already overstressed databases.

Imagine ten systems that must interact as part of a government system.  If each of these systems connects directly with each of the others, performance slows.  It takes too long for System A to speak to System B, receive the response, then transmit that data to System C.  Meanwhile, System C is held up as it waits for inputs from Systems D and E.  This shows up as long delays for users.  They type in a simple request and wait for minutes, and sometimes hours, for any kind of answer.  A data warehouse must be carefully designed to avoid performance bottlenecks.  Sunrise streamlines inter-system collaboration and provides users with rapid responses.

However, economics must also enter the equation.  The price tag for the data warehouse must be in keeping with the budgetary limits of the organization.  While it will require upfront investment, it should be designed to return that investment over a relatively short time interval.

These are a few of the challenges commonly experienced in data warehousing projects.  Each was uniquely addressed as part of the CRIM’s Sunrise implementation to address the obstacles and effectively reach a plateau of action.  The disciplined focus of Sunrise allowed CRIM to identify and power through the barriers to remarkable revenue results.

Property Tax Challenges in Puerto Rico

CRIM found itself struggling with federal and municipal governments in the turmoil of a severe fiscal crisis, an infrastructure affected by hurricanes and earthquakes, and a global pandemic aborning.   Revenue protection became a survival issue.  CRIM’s management realized that it had to step up its efforts to help municipalities fund urgent recovery programs related to health services, security, education, employment, and infrastructure.  It set itself a target of increasing income by at least 10%.

CRIM’s executives were aware of Truenorth’s reputation through successful projects it had executed for the Puerto Rico government in water, power, health, education, and worker’s compensation agencies.  That success convinced the agency to implement Truenorth’s Sunrise to find a way to boost income streams by integrating its existing data silos.

The first step was reviewing all related systems to determine the extent of the problem and the potential for revenue increase.  Consultants discovered that CRIM’s accounts receivables represented a $3.6 billion opportunity.  However, only 22% was currently being collected in property taxes.  Due to property improvements that were not being taxed, incorrect invoicing, wrong contact information, or other issues, payment processes were hamstrung by system inefficiency.

Truenorth’s engagement entailed an in-depth analysis and review of all internal processes, financials, systems data, and revenue streams.  Truenorth reviewed CRIM’s Hansen billing system, its ESRI Geographic Information System (GIS) that maps property and land boundaries, another system for property appraisals, and several Oracle and SQL databases.  The results were compared to information from the last census (2010) and correlated with other government agencies’ data.  For example, Truenorth had worked on projects for the Puerto Rico government water and power agencies to ensure their contact information matched that record with the U.S. Postal Service.  This provided CRIM with a database already verified as having ~98% accuracy of addresses.  Sunrise dug into the data and it uncovered multiple avenues for improvement.  These included many undeliverable invoices due to incorrect addresses or contact information and a massive pile of returned invoices due to incorrect addresses or contact information.

The data silos within CRIM’s multiple systems and databases inhibited the efforts of agency personnel to increase collections.  For example, Truenorth reviewed current data in the CRIM billing system and GIS against census numbers.  This revealed startling discrepancies.

Further, Sunrise found that tens of thousands of properties across the island had been improved, yet no property reappraisal has been made.  Add to those thousands of new pools that owners had added.  This last finding was particularly significant.  Properties without a pool qualify for an exemption of no property tax for the first $15,000 of appraised value.  By law, once a pool is added, that exemption is no longer available.

Also, CRIM brought in Merrick Consulting Services to conduct a spatial assessment of the entire island.  Merrick used drones to remap every property in Puerto Rico and feed it into the ESRI GIS database.  A comparison of the 2010 census with that spatial analysis revealed more than 50,000 newly built properties that had yet to be appraised – in other words, they were not paying property taxes.  Added together, these various areas represented hundreds of millions in lost revenue.

Sunrise – Exceeded Expectations for Revenue Generation and Ease of Use

Truenorth implemented Sunrise in several phases.  Once the evaluation phase had been completed, the next step was to bring in a new data warehouse architecture.  Its purpose was to integrate the various data silos within the CRIM billing, appraisals, and property mapping systems.  This included developing extract, transform, and load (ETL) processes to cleanse, transform, and aggregate the data within the data warehouse.  This is vital in preparing the consolidated data for multi-dimensional analysis, data mining, report generation, real-time alerts, and visualization.

That was followed by integrating data from other government agencies (water, power, treasury, health, and tourism).  This enabled CRIM to identify new income streams and to be able to detect fraud.

The interconnection of dozens of databases and systems across multiple CRIM and Puerto Rico government entities was no minor endeavor.  Under the old architecture, each process and system connected with every other system directly.  This labyrinth of interconnections could have taken months to reengineer.  That’s why Truenorth introduced TimeXtender to bring simplification to the project.

TimeXtender served as the central repository for data from all other property tax-related databases and sources.  TimeXtender provides more than 200 pre-configured and certified connectors between systems.  In other words, Truenorth’s system engineers did not need to develop connections between TimeXtender’s software and other systems.  These connectors were already available in a library for instant use.  This enabled the company to build a data warehouse in record time.  Instead of many months for such a complex project, it took only two days in a proof-of-concept stage and a further 15 days for the production system to integrate the data silos within CRIM’s many systems and databases.  The TimeXtender data warehouse is built using Microsoft SQL Server and is fully integrated with Microsoft Power BI to provide front-end visualizations of data.

Next came the alignment of support services and payment processes to ensure smooth and accurate invoicing.  Sunrise was configured to automatically produce data lineage and documentation to facilitate agency oversight.

With everything in place, data is now pulled nightly from all other property tax systems into TimeXtender.  That data is then organized and analyzed.  CRIM’s management and personnel are provided with customized reports and dashboards.  When they log in, they immediately have access to Microsoft Power BI dashboards showing the data they need to perform their functions.

Stellar Results

With the vital components of Sunrise in place, CRIM gained the ability to mine its data effectively.  Sunrise culled information from all relevant systems and fed it into an analytics engine.  Sunrise uncovered the following critical actionable items:

  • 117,000 undeliverable invoices due to incorrect addresses or contact information (representing a possible annual net new revenue of $117 million)
  • 104,000 returned invoices due to incorrect addresses or contact information (representing a potential net yearly revenue of $46 million)
  • 55,000 property improvements that had not been appraised (representing a potential net yearly revenue of $22 million)
  • 28,000 new pools (properties with a pool no longer qualify for various exemptions) (meaning a possible net yearly net income of $7 million)
  • 58,000 newly built properties that had not been appraised (representing a potential annual net new revenue of $62 million)

Each of these areas meant urgently needed revenue that municipalities could either collect at once or would be able to manage once appraisal backlogs had been addressed.

CRIM can now use Sunrise to access personalized dashboards based on Microsoft Power BI.  Additionally, the project addressed a significant change for CRIM managers and IT staff – reporting.  In the past, reports such as those providing an accurate revenue count took about one month to generate.  IT staff had to code each report individually.  With the new system in place, management requested seven reports.  These were provided so rapidly that they soon realized that report generation had entered a new era.  Thirty-five standard reports are now available, some in real-time, others representing data no more than one day old.

In using Sunrise, CRIM is enjoying massive time savings in IT, management, collections, and administration.  The government managed to avoid the temptation to raise property taxes while generating enough income for the municipalities.

A Brighter Road Ahead

With CRIM now having modernized systems successfully across multiple Puerto Rico government agencies, Truenorth’s long-term vision is to help the government create a government-wide data warehouse integrating data from all government entities using Sunrise.  Once developed, this will enable the government to define a unique ID that identifies each citizen independent of a Social Security number.  This ID will apply to all government agencies and is independent of citizenship status.  It will also enable the government to define a unique ID that identifies each property based on its geospatial location.  Standardized addresses are an integral part of this.  The result will be easier interaction with the government by its citizens and higher income and significantly reduced fraud.

About Sunrise by Truenorth

Truenorth’s Sunrise Software-as-a-Service solution is based on its successful Revenue Assurance methodology and is supported by its Business Insights services. Drawing from three distinct disciplines; Management Consulting, Technology, and Application Management with Machine Learning Artificial Intelligence, Sunrise illuminates the path towards sustainable revenue to meet immediate challenges.  Serving all industries, Sunrise can be fully customized using Microsoft’s Azure, Power BI, and SQL Server and TimeXtender’s award-winning software.  Demonstrating its market advantage, Sunrise has also been successfully implemented in numerous organizations such as the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, Puerto Rico’s Department of Health, and Puerto Rico’s Corporación del Fondo del Seguro del Estado (CFSE), helping them generate new income opportunities and reduce fraud.